Gainesville physical therapist incorporates martial arts in healing

Santiago "Chagui'' Casanova teaches a tai-chi class at Balanced Body Center on Tuesday, April 8. The students are not identifiable because they didn't wish to be photographed.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 4:13 p.m.

Santiago Casanova is immersed in a rehabilitation session with a struggling client. Part therapist and part coach, he urges the woman to even greater exertions.

“That’s it, you’re doing great!” he cheers. “Just keep going!”

It is one of countless such sessions Casanova, 56, has conducted with Gainesville-area clients, some of them approaching 90, all trying to restore functions in their limbs.

Known as “Chagui’’ to family and friends, he has trained in areas from orthopedics and neurology to aquatics and sports medicine. Unlike many physical therapists, he also incorporates Pilates-based rehab and martial arts, especially tai chi.

Each week, clients flow to his studio at Balanced Body at 4800 W. Newberry Road for his healing words and hands. Casanova said he has been doing this for 27 years, but in truth, he has been learning and practicing the healing arts his whole life.

Born in Cuba and coming to the U.S. with his family at the age of 5, Casanova said his father, an orthopedic surgeon, inspired him to pursue a career in which attentive patient care was his main priority.

“We left Cuba with the notion that we had the love of God, the love of each other and knowing that an education could never be taken away from you,” he said.

Casanova remembers shadowing his father in the emergency room at St. James’ Hospital in Newark, N.J. Casanova was known as “Little Doc” by his father’s colleagues because of how often he tagged along.

“My dad had impeccable bedside manners,” he said. “The man was unbelievable.”

One time, a man who had been in a motorcycle accident was rushed to the emergency room. Casanova’s father opened the curtain, “and all I could see was this man’s back, and he was bleeding and he had lost all the skin on his backside,” Casanova said. The man was shaking.

Casanova remembers how his father assured the man he was going to be fine by putting his hand on his knee and saying, “I’m gonna help you get better.”

“That man’s shoulders just dropped (when my father said that),” Casanova said.

“I thought, ‘Man, my dad must have magic in his hands!’ ”

Casanova’s father eventually moved his family to a different part of New Jersey, where he became a coach for many high school teams. He often would help take care of athletes’ injuries after games and on the weekends, Casanova said of his father.

Some of the athletes would receive further treatment at the Kessler Rehab Institute in West Orange, N.J.

Casanova recalls that at the age of 10, he would sneak away from the orthopedic section of the institute and observe the neurological therapists. He was inspired by how they treated patients who suffered from cases ranging from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy.

Casanova earned degrees in chemistry and nutritional biochemistry at the University of Florida and got a job at UF’s College of Medicine working with the late Dr. Robert Cade and Dr. Craig Tisher, former dean of the College of Medicine.

Throughout it all, Casanova clung to a dream of becoming a physical therapist.

“I got accepted into six medical schools and turned them all down,” he said.

He applied to UF’s physical therapy program, and on the last day the admissions office was interviewing prospective students, he still had not heard from them.

“My ex-wife said to me, ‘You’re gonna wait for the mail? Why don’t you just go to the school and check it out?’ ” he remembered.

He went to the school, and a secretary told him they had not received his application.

“I said, ‘That can’t be true because I have a certified letter here that says you have. I’m going to sit out in the hallway until you find it,” he said.

Casanova meditated in a hallway for about 45 minutes until he felt “warmth in front of him.” When he opened his eyes, it was the secretary saying she had found his chart under some old phone books they were planning on throwing away. He got an interview on the spot.

“I didn’t know you had to dress up to the nines (for the interview). I wore a cut-off silk shirt, earrings, kung fu shoes … and a pair of jeans. I thought, ‘Oh, damn, I’ve lost this already. I shouldn’t even try,’ ” he said.

Three instructors from the program interviewed six students at a time. Casanova said that as they asked questions, he quickly remembered the other interviewees’ responses and used them in his own responses. To this day, he says his ease with people and “quick familiarity” left an impression on the interviewers.

He later learned that 930 people had applied for 28 positions. He was one of three people in his group to be accepted into the PT program.

“I knew that the guy upstairs wanted me to be a PT,” he said.

Casanova began learning about martial arts when he was 13 and joined a school wrestling team. That led him to earn ranks in judo, taekwondo, aikido and eventually tai chi, which has become part of his practice.

In the tai chi classes he leads at Balanced Body, Casanova teaches the ideas of balance and of the spirit and physical body being centered.

Tai chi, he said, benefits people because of the weight-bearing aspect of its movements. It also enables “chi” to be extended throughout the bones of the body, creating what is called a piezoelectric effect on the bone. This small charge, he explained, stimulates the bone to grow thicker and stronger.

Casanova concentrates on a fundamental neuromuscular approach to re-educate the person’s system to move in ways that were limited because of injuries or neurological disorders.

He emphasized the importance of this approach when it comes to improving the daily lives of his patients.

“Just to bring the arm up overhead to reach for something in the cupboard, there are a lot of things that entails,’’ he said. “You have to have a stable trunk, the shoulder blade needs to be working properly, the shoulder needs to move properly in its socket. It all has to happen in a concerted, synergistic way.”

Through all of Casanova’s various trainings and techniques, there is one constant theme. Like his father before him, he uses the “magic in his hands’’ to tap into people’s own rehabilitative powers.

That’s one reason he employs the quiet martial art of tai chi to help heal his patients.

The word “chi,” he noted, means life force.

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